Works of Hermes (“Hermetica”)

Category: Neoplatonism

(Note: as explained below, the Hermetica are not, in and of themselves, Neoplatonic!)

1 Pages in this category

+On the Order of Souls (link), Stobaeus on the God, Alchemical frr., etc.

2 Introduction

In the Hellenistic and Roman imperial periods, when many Egyptians took up writing in Greek and non-Egyptians were increasingly interested in Egyptian learning – which they accessed mostly through Greek –, it was conventional for writers in this space to attribute works of various genres to the scribal god, Hermes, translating the Egyptian name Thōout. This was especially common in what might be considered texts of priestly lore and any kind of arcane or secret learning. By modern convention, we refer to these texts (or some of these texts, at least) as “Hermetica”. Those who use the works of Hermes to construct a coherent philosophy or religious practice today are called “Hermet(ic)ists”.

There is much debate about how Egyptian and/or Greek the figure of Hermes is in this context, and whether the Hermetica are a genuinely Egyptian or a Greek intellectual product. But that debate often presumes a much more stable boundary between Egyptianness and Greekness than existed historically. Any Greek-language text mentioning Hermes is of course in conversation with Greek literature and worship traditions, but it can simultaneously be nothing more than a direct translation of Thōout. The specifically Egyptian character could be marked by giving Hermes the byname Trismegistus, ‘thrice-greatest’, but this does not actually imply a distinction between the Greek and Egyptian god.

If there is a distinction, it is between the god himself (called Thōout, Hermes, Mercury, etc., depending on the language) and the ancient Egyptian sage to whom the writings are attributed (as perhaps in the Asclepius; see below). Insofar as Hermes was understood as a human sage, ancient writers retained the name even when using different languages, such as Latin or Syriac, and later Arabic, instead of translating it to Mercury or the like.

The rest of this page will serve as an overview of the various so-called Hermetica, and how they may be approached and studied. But SARTRIX does not lay out or advocate a synthesized Hermetic philosophy or religion; for that, you will have to consult the sites and books of contemporary Hermeticists, like The Digital Ambler (off-site link). I am more interested in the works of Hermes as representatives of, and influences on, Ancient Mediterranean Polytheism writ large, including an influence on the Neoplatonists. This is the only reason I group the works of Hermes under the heading of ‘Neoplatonism’ here – not because the Hermetica represent, or are influenced by, Neoplatonic philosophy, which is most emphatically not the case, but because Neoplatonic philosophers saw them as genuine authorities.

3 General views of the sage Hermes across the Ancient Mediterranean

Pagan writers from late antiquity regularly refer to Hermes as one of the great sages of the world, especially in response to the arguments of Christians, who prided themselves on the great antiquity of the Bible. Longinianus, for instance, in a letter to the bishop Augustine (from around 400 CE), writes of the agreement on many questions between “not only the Socratic writings, nor […] just your prophetic or a few Jerusalemite ones – but also the Orpheïc, Tagetic* and Trismegistic writings, which are much more ancient than these, and arose in times still nearly uncivilized, with the gods as their originators” (Longinianus in Augustine, Letters 234).

(*In the manuscripts, Ageticis; if the emendation Tageticis is right, as most scholars seem to agree it is, it refers to the writings ascribed to Tages and other Etruscan sages, constituting the Etrusca disciplina.)

Similarly, the emperor and Neoplatonist Julian (r. 361–363 CE) wrote, in a passage from his anti-Christian polemic Against the Galilaeans that survives through quotation by Cyril of Alexandria: “The deity (ho theós) provided not only for the Hebrews; in fact, of the provisions for all peoples, it granted nothing especially good or important to them, but on us (pagans), something much greater and more excellent […]. Firstly, the Egyptians, who count the names of no small number of sages among them, can claim to have had many in the succession of Hermes – I mean the Hermes who, in the third instance, appeared in Egypt. The Chaldaeans and Assyrians have (the successors) of Ninus (or ‘Oannes’?) and Belus. And the Greeks have myriads (of sages) beginning from Chiron; for stemming from him, they came to be naturally telestic and theologic* – although the Hebrews see fit to extol their own traditions alone in this regard” (Cyril, Against Julian 5.33).

(*Here, telestic refers to ritual expertise in general, theology to knowledge of the nature of the gods – in other words, divine theory and practice.)

Some centuries later, one of the last remaining pagan communities would actually claim Hermes as their prophet, in analogy to Zarathushtra, Moses, Jesus or Muhammad, in order to be recognized as a legitimate religion, called the Ṣābiˀans, under Islamic rule. These pagans, from the Assyrian city of Ḥarrān, also produced new writings of Hermes (around the 9th century CE), as did other Arabic-language writers in their wake.

The figure of Hermes could of course also be used by Jews, Christians and Manichaeans, and each group was liable to call into question the claim the others made on him. Ephraem the Syrian, († 373 CE) an orthodox Christian, disputed the Manichaean appeal to Hermes as a forerunner of their own prophet in his prose refutation Against Mani (off-site link). There, he lays out that Hermes (specifically the text we know as Corpus Hermeticum 4; see below) is in agreement neither with Christianity nor with Manichaeism.

Others among his co-religionists, however, did cite Hermes as a prophet of the Christian truth, if perhaps an unwitting or unwilling one – although some of the quotations these Christian writers use seem to have been invented only for that anti-pagan purpose (examples of both will be given below).

There were also some who took a less sectarian view of such things, such as Synesius of Cyrene (around 400 CE), who was a Christian bishop but also a follower of Neoplatonic philosophy. He in one instance lists Amous (i.e. Amun), Zoroaster, Hermes and St. Anthony together as great paragons (Synesius, Dion 9.3).

4 Uses of Hermes’ works

Beyond these general and often shallow appeals to the name and reputation of Hermes Trismegistus, what was the role that works ascribed to him actually played in ancient intellectual and practical life?



5 Philosophical works of Hermes

Other sources]

from HHoL:

– Clement Salaman et al., „Way of Hermes“ (contains the Corpus Hermeticum and the Definitions)
– Clement Salaman, „Asclepius“ (containing the Asclepius)
– Brian Copenhaver, „Hermetica“ (Corpus Hermeticum and Asclepius)
– M. David Litwa, „Hermetica II“ (Stobaean Fragments and many other smaller texts)
– A translation of the Nag Hammadi Codices, either the one edited by Meyer or by Robinson
– Hans D. Betz, „The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation“
– Marvin Meyer, „Ancient Christian Magic“

– Garth Fowden, „The Egyptian Hermes“
– Christian Bull, „The Tradition of Hermes Trismegistus“
– Kevin van Bladel, „The Arabic Hermes“
– R. van den Broek and C. v Heertum, „From Poimandres to Jacob Böhme“
– Anything by Wouter J. Hanegraaff (you can find many of his and others‘ papers on for free)

6 Astrological works of Hermes (in Greek)

Lost astrological works attributed or connected to Hermes include the Salmeschoiniaka, the Genica, Panaretos and the Myriogenesis of Asclepius. Hermes is also quoted as an authority in the fragments attributed to Nechepsos and Petosiris and in the so-called Art of Eudoxus. However, it seems to me that the surviving texts in which sparse remains of these lost works can be found occur still have to be studied more fully in their own right before we attempt to reconstruct their sources.

My interest for the moment lies rather in the surviving astrological works attributed to Hermes. These are not unified by doctrine, but do encompass a distinct range of topics:

There are further Greek astrological opuscula ascribed to Hermes that have not yet been edited; e.g., On the Name and Power of the Twelve Places (see CCAG, vol. 8.4, pp. 126–158). It is to be hoped that they will be published in time.

The book of Pseudo-Thessalus, with extensive sections on 19 plants assigned to the zodiac signs and the planets, is also sometimes attributed to Hermes (edition Hans-Veit Friedrich, Thessalos von Tralles).

There is also a text of lay astrology, characterizing the twelve hours of day and night of every weekday according to their planetary ruler, in in the Syriac Book of Medicines (off-site link to English translation), pp. 609–615.

7 Other “magical” instructions of Hermes (in Greek)

There are countless magic or ritual texts somehow related to Hermes, but a smaller number in which he has something like an author function (marking not a distinct making tradition but something like a loose sub-genre). Firstly, from the texts collected in the Greek Magical Papyri:

  • Greek Magical Papyri (PGM) 4.94–153 is a spell that involves a dialogue between Isis and Thoth (=Hermes), her father, in Hieratic.
  • The Trance of Solomon (PGM 4.850–929) includes in its invocation a long name attributed to Hermes Trismegistus.
  • The Success and Invocation spell called The Little Beggar (PGM 4.2373–2440) is attributed to Hermes. It involves the creation of a statuette, and the spell just before involves making a figure of Hermes (PGM 4.2359–2372).
  • PGM 5.213–303 is called Hermes’ Ring, and its creation involves a spell spoken in the voice of Thouth (=Hermes).
  • The Marvelous Victory Charm of Hermes (PGM 7.919–924) is a tablet addressed to Thōouth (=Hermes) to be kept in your sandals.
  • In the Eighth Book of Moses (PGM 13), a now lost work of Hermes called Wing is mentioned (lines 15ff) as having plagiarized Moses’ list of the incenses of the planets.
  • PGM 24a is a simple method of divination attributed to the archives of Hermes.

The Cyranides (ed. D. Kaimakis, Die Kyraniden) are a compilation of materials:

  • The first book consists of 24 chapters, one for each letter of the Greek alphabet, with every chapter listing an herb, fish, stone and bird whose name begins with that letter, plus instructions for how to use them in making talismans, or other operations. The surviving version of this book combines two adaptations of the same stock of material – one redaction attributed to Hermes, the other to Harpocration – back into one text. The Neoplatonist Olympiodorus still had the work attributed to Hermes in an independent form, since he paraphrases a passage from it that is no longer extant now.
  • The second book treats quadrupeds and their uses, again in alphabetical order but looser structure.
  • Book three is on birds.
  • Book four on fish.
  • Book five in the edition of Kaimakis is on herbs, again alphabetically; it was transmitted along with the Cyranides in some manuscripts, but historically was not regarded as part of it.
  • The same is true of book six, on stones.

There are both Arabic and Latin translations or reworkings of (parts of) the Cyranides.

Aristotle to Hermes on the Hēgemonikón, actually a letter addressed to Alexander but somehow related to Hermes, gives a number of operations. Ed. A. Delatte, Anecdota Athenensia (off-site link), pp. 462 464.

8 Alchemical works of Hermes (in Greek)

Hermes is one of the authorities listed in the Byzantine Names of the Gold-Makers (Ὀνόματα τῶν χρυσοποιητῶν):

“Learn, my friend, the names of the makers. Beginning. Plato, Aristotle, Hermes, John the priest of the (?) in divine Euasia, Democritus, Zosimus, the great Olympiodorus, Stephanus the philosopher, Sophar in Persia, Synesius, Dioscorus the priest of the great Sarapis in Alexandria, Ostanes from Egypt, Comarius from Egypt, Mary, and Cleopatra the wife of the king Ptolemy, Porphyry, Epichechius Pelagius, Agathodaemon, the emperor Heraclius, Theophrastus, Archelaus, Petasius, Claudian, the anonymous philosopher, Menus the philosopher, Panseris, Sergius. These are the all-praiseworthy teachers of the whole world and the recent exegetes of Plato and Aristotle.
“And the lands in which this divine work is practiced are Egypt, Thrace, Alexandria, Cyprus, and in the temple of Memphis.”

There are many alchemical fragments of Hermes surviving in the Greek alchemical literature, usually cited without attribution to a specific work of his; as such, there is no point to listing them here independently of their translation (see the link).

Let me only mention what may be the most important alchemical work in terms of philosophical ideas attributed to Hermes, namely On the Letter Omega by Zosimus of Panopolis (which has been translated by Howard M. Jackson).

There is a poem called Riddle of the Philosophical Stone of Hermes and Agathodaemon (Αἴνιγμα τοῦ φιλοσοφικοῦ λίθου Ἑρμοῦ καὶ Ἀγαθοδαίμονος), incorporated into the Sibylline Oracles and discussed at length by the alchemist Stephanus, On the Great and Sacred Art:

“I have nine letters; I am of four syllables; understand me:
The first three (syllables) each have two letters,
The last has the rest. There are five consonants,
And by their whole number, there are twice eight hundred,
And three, and four thirties. If you know who I am,
You will no longer be uninitiated to my divine science.”
(Ed. M. Berthelot & C.É. Ruelle, Collection des anciens alchimistes grecs, vol. 2, p. 267.)

There does not seem to be an obvious divergene between alchemical doctrines attributed to Hermes and others. Most interestingly, there are also works assigned to other Egyptian deities, like Isis (Prophetess Isis to Horus) and Agathodaemon, who also appear as characters in the philosophical works of Hermes.

With the alchemical literature as it survives, Zosimus of Panopolis is arguably the most important figure. Hermes is an authoritative figure for him, but not more authoritative than the other sages; he should therefore not be called a Hermetic author, but one who is part of the same strand as the alchemical Hermes.

9 Arabic works of Hermes


10 Latin works of Hermes